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Taking cocktail culture home

Dana Hoff | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

Manhattan's not the only place with $20 cocktails. A premium liquor boom has given consumers more options to spend big on their own home bar.

Top-tier spirits have seen tremendous growth in recent years. The overall U.S. bourbon market grew 13.2 percent last year from the previous year, while super premium bourbons rose 79.5 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Super premium rum sales are up 91 percent year-over-year, versus 2.5 percent for the spirit's overall market. Even the market for super premium liqueurs and cordials saw a 21.1 percent increase last year.

Chalk it up, in large part, to the growing number of micro-distilleries producing small-batch organic, local or otherwise specialty spirits that often fit into premium categories. "The big guys are looking at that and seeing they have to step up," said Jerald O'Kennard, director of the Beverage Testing Institute. Major brands have extended their own lines with premium spirits that have been aged longer, or with a unique finish or flavor.

(Read more: Cheers! Jack Daniel's to build new distillery)

Renewed interest in cocktail culture has exposed drinkers to more of that selection—through craft spirit bars, buzzed-about drinks and spirits festivals such as Tales of the Cocktail, said Tony Abou-Ganim, author of "The Modern Mixologist." And it's whetted their appetites. "I have never seen the interest I see today in the enjoyment of spirits and cocktails at home," he said. "They've developed their palates."

More choice and a wider price range at the liquor store can be a conundrum for consumers: What's worth buying splurging on? It's tough to tell—and with many bottles costing upward of $50 apiece, a little risky. "A lot of it is just marketing," said O'Kennard. "But there are some genuine innovations and liquid treasures being put out."

(Read more: Younger drinkers tire of the taste of light beer)

Don't pick by price alone. "The most expensive spirit is not always the best spirit," said Noah Rothbaum, editor-in-chief of Liquor.com. There's a lot of variation by category in the factors driving price, and some have more bargain bottles than others. While a premium single-malt Scotch might set you back $50, for example, a decent gin can still be had for $20, or a dark rum for under $40.

Splurging on a pricey bottle can also be more or less worth it, depending on how you plan to use it. Experts say many premium spirits are best sipped neat. That's not to say a mixologist couldn't craft an amazing sidecar from using Louis XIII cognac ($2,500), but it would be a waste with Red Bull, said Abou-Ganim.

The nuance of the cocktail has some impact. "I don't think it makes a lot of sense to spend more than $20 on vodka if all you're going to do is put it with cranberry juice or orange juice," said O'Kennard. Simple can be fine, however, for drinkers who plan to go high-end for their entire cocktail experience, pairing say, their premium gin with one of the artisanal tonic waters now on the market, Rothbaum said.

Researching expert and consumer reviews can help shoppers narrow the field further to find a bottle that they might like, but it's still smart to sample before investing in a full-size bottle, if possible. Abou-Ganim recommends hunting for a good craft cocktail bar or one specializing in a particular spirit, both of which are likely to have a wide selection available for tasting.

If that's not an option, the liquor store can be a good bet, too. Many offer tastings, and have knowledgeable staff who can make recommendations. Plus, the selection isn't limited to large bottles. "A lot of liquor stores sell a staggering selection of the airport size minis," said Rothbaum. "Buy 10 and experiment."

By CNBC.com's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @KelliGrant.

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